Stowers, Protreptic Rhetoric and Romans

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is a much heralded work to which has been contributed the greatest theological revolutions, from Augustine to Luther to Calvin, so when Stowers comments that early scholars found hesitation in assigning genre to the New Testament because some feared that is would be “as aspersion against the Holy Spirit” (17) I can understand any trepidation in examining Romans as anything less than theological. Yet, the purpose of Paul’s letter should be in the foreground before theological discussions can commence. Before understanding the purpose, however, one must be able to understand that, as Stowers says, constructing the occasion of the letter based only on the letter itself leads to circular logic. He suggests that a comparative study be made between the letters in the New Testament and those of the culture which surrounded the authors (25). To this, I would agree, noting to do otherwise is to create a patina of interpretive layers which may never lead to the actual purpose of the letter and in many ways cover the real theological treatise which is Romans. It is this purpose which is important, and I would contend, is sometimes separate, but always informed by, of the author’s theology.

Before I move into the assessment of Romans as protrepic rhetoric, I want to note two things mentioned by Stowers which I have found to be something to further use in understanding Romans. First, Stowers notes that Paul’s use of paraenesis has been misunderstood. This concept of paraenesis, in which an author in writing his or her letter would tie together various subsections in support over the overall purpose is one which I believe can be found in Romans. After all, what is recognizable is Romans 9-11 in which Paul makes the case of the continued election of the Jews. I would contend as well, alongside of Stowers comments that both “supporting argumentation” and “use of examples” fit within the definition of paraenesis, that Romans 5-8 is a paraenetic section in which Paul presents and argument for justification and follows it through using the ritual of baptism as the symbol of it, while explaining what actually happens in baptism in chapters 7 and 8. (23)

Second is the mention of conversion literature (37). Stowers previously mentioned that letter writing remained on the fringes of the use of rhetoric; however, letters picked up rhetoric naturally as rhetoricians who wrote letters included their training and style in them. When Seneca the Younger began to write his letters to Lucilius, he incorporated his rhetoric into them so that they became written rhetoric to be published, reaching a wide audience. No doubt, the written rhetoric served the pursuit of philosophy well, as we see in Epistle 90 from Seneca. Stowers notes that the pursuit of philosophy created schools around leaders (36-37).  Conversion to philosophy came through persuasion and, as Stowers notes, could range from “a quiet commitment or a dramatic transformation” which was not considered to be enough. Thus, conversion literature was developed which helped to inform and guide the catechumen into a better understanding of philosophy.  These letters served as examples of life which promoted the readers in their journey. Further, Stowers notes that these letters were to help the converted share in the conversion and “friendship of his guide.”

In discussing the types of letters, Stowers explicitly states that “Paul’s letter to the Romans is a protreptic letter.” These letters of recruitment served to exhort students to convert to particular schools (113). Further, Stowers notes that these letters were dominated, regardless of the school, with philosophy. They were, in my estimation, letters which exhorted philosophy overall, but served the particular school in calling attention to what they had to offer while answering any contentions about their own philosophical outlook. Stowers makes the rather obvious connection that these letters would serve the Christian community given the “missionary impulse.” He notes, without calling it as such (at least in this book), Paul’s use of prosopopeia in Romans, although I would contend that instead of limiting the use of this technique to Romans 3-11, Paul begins this form of rhetoric in chapter 1. In this, Paul is using Romans to present himself as a “Master Teacher” to a group of like-minded believers who have never met him before. Further, Stowers notes that Paul is trying to correct some of the “pretentiousness” and other attitudes which prevent both Jews and Gentiles from accepting his gospel.

I am convinced by his argument due to my understanding of Paul’s cognitive environment and further, due to Paul’s connection to Seneca[1]. If it can be an assumed supposition that Paul’s preaching of Christ can be contrived in such a way as to mimic the pursuit of philosophy, as was often seen by later Christian philosophers such as Justin, Augustine, and Aquinas, then we might understand Paul’s letter to the Romans, arguably the most intense of his letters, to be a protreptic letter which perhaps sought to do more than to, as Stowers suggested, establish Paul as a “Master Teacher” but to make the Roman congregation one of Paul’s own. We know from Paul’s other letters that he had rivalries within the Christian community. In Galatians, he is writing, much in the way in which Stowers describes some of the Cynic school, to brutally squash his “Judaizing” rivals in that city, although that city was one of his congregations which he felt obliged too. We see some of this in the Corinthian letters as well. According to most commentators, Paul was intending to go to Spain after his trip to Rome; it would then behoove Paul to have a strong European base which was attached to him and his Gospel for support of the mission. While I would agree with Stowers that Romans is a protreptic letter, I would further narrow it down to suggest that Paul was engaging in recruitment, and not just laying the groundwork for his visit.

As noted earlier, I would agree that Paul was using prosopopeia in his Epistle to the Romans. While this paper is not the space to argue or to define the full details of his usage, I would suggest that it doesn’t merely begin in Romans 3, but begins in Romans 1.17 in which Paul begins his dialogue in earnest in which, surprising to those who would use such verses wrongly, begins by condemning the Jewish believe that Gentiles were idol worshipers and worse and because of this, could not be saved. Further, I may extend it even further, and instead allowing Paul just one dialogue partner which was Jewish, having him engage with a Gentile partner. Stowers notes that even protreptic letters had hortatory features, which allows that the prologue in Romans, in which great praise is given to the Roman congregation as a whole, as well as the closing chapters, regardless of critical arrangement, to become a letter with the hortatory introductions and conclusions giving added urging to the congregation to consider what Paul will say and the great care he will extend to them.

Further, I would assign, as stated above, Paul’s continued development of justification to rhetorical paraenesis in which he uses examples and examples to develop the ritual of baptism as a sign of justification. Of course, I admit that as with most things, the subject of baptism in Pauline thought, can rarely be separate from the various theologies often applied to it. As conceded before, when rediscovering Romans through the lens of rhetorical criticism, it will be difficult to separate what we believe to be Pauline purpose from our reception of the letter through theological interpretation.  For example, in the Reformed Tradition, there is a great deal made of a forensic view of justification in Romans as well as a lesser meaning assigned to baptism. Any challenge to this is often met with violent reactions that somehow Scripture has lost its authority. Yet, if it is shown that Paul was writing not so much with a theological purpose to accurately state justification by faith alone, but to present a protreptic piece, I would be concerned with the ability of some to separate a background theology brought forward by later interpretations rather than focusing on the overall purpose of the letter. With that said, Paul’s protreptic purpose would have no doubt included his theological agenda, as he would have felt, if indeed this was a protreptic letter, that the Romans would somehow benefit more from his teaching than what they were currently receiving (See Romans 1.11-12, in which Paul first wants to strength them, but as a second thought, would rather be mutually encouraging).

With that said, however, I believe that Paul was using rhetoric, and from a cursory reading of Romans, as well as in my studies thus far in this semester, I can only believe that Paul’s letters have endured where others failed because he was successful in his rhetoric[2]. In Romans, we find a protreptic piece in an ideal situation. Paul, who had never been to Rome, was going there before he went to Spain. It was the perfect occasion to send such a rhetorical letter in hopes of securing a base of support for his mission work. Further, as scholars note, Paul uses paraenesis and prosopopeia in Romans to a recognizable degree. What remains is to separate, naturally, our theological understanding and other patina of Christian tradition, including even chapter and verse, from Romans to allow Paul’s original theology which would have been second to his purpose to come forward.



[1] In my previous work, I failed to note that Paul had actually met Seneca’s brother Gallio (Acts 18.12-17)

[2] I do not mean to discount any understandings of inspiration which may be tied to reception and canonization.

Post By Joel Watts (9,925 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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12 thoughts on Stowers, Protreptic Rhetoric and Romans

  1. Good stuff.

    If this is for a paper, you might want to correct your spelling of “protreptic”. (You keep omitting the second “t”.)

  2. Ah,joe,I have also used rhetorical paraenesis when addressing you;alas to no avail!Why are you so stiff-necked and not amenable to rational argument.You persist in your quaint belief that,somewhere,out there,exists your benevolent-well,benevolent if you are a devout jew but inclined to genocidal violence when not so devout!-irrational,vindictive god,whatever that word means.
    Free yourself,I beg you,from that intellectually stifling cocoon of religious belief;dare to breathe the fresh air of reason,strike a blow for independence and,of this I am sure,we could even conduct a rational conversation!How is that for paraenesis?

    And how s old satan these days?Has josh struck him down yet or is this a blasphemous thought already?
    I have noted your euphemistic “dang” when you actually wanted to curse,Jesus christ and general jackson or even use the dreaded “f” word.Am I correct?So,let it all out,joe;have no fear;there is no god out there watching over you or any one else.Poor delusional josh,if he ever lived,that is;he didn’t see it coming,did he?Just as in our day the US,in the shape of its Airforce,will destroy any heretical movement,i.e a non-democratic system which means a country or government which does not subscribe to US hegemony,so the Romans took this poor,half-crazed loon out of circulation.
    A total failure,on any terms you wish to name.He achieved nothing but the christian churches,using the name of this poor devil,have constructed enormous edifices,impenetrable bureaucracies,colossal hierarchies and condign punishment for those who divert from the “path of righteousness”.
    And,despite your cheerful exterior,I believe that,under this bland facade there lies a seething mind,an intense yearning to change the world of men,to alter it closer to your heart’s desire;just like all dictators.And is not the claim by the RC church to be the one and only blessed -making -church a dictatorial,ideological claim?And,no doubt,you,on the well-worn Mormon road,will also make a similar claim.
    Anyway,joe,I must work and you must pray.Is this truly the occupation of a real man?
    You know where to find me.Your moral and extremely ethical correspondent.B.B.

  3. Dear Joe,
    having re-read Paul’s letters to the Romans or should that be Roma? and devoted considerable time,and thought,to possible interpretations of his protreptic-or should that read dyspeptic?-pieces I have concluded that he was a re-actionary,revisionist jew who,despite all paraenesis and prosopopeia in some,admittedly later,works,remained immune to reason,rational argument or common sense;in fact he was the true christian arche-,holotype!
    He would make a wonderful study for a modern psychiatrist,full as he was of nonsense and convinced of his own importance in the scheme of things.Do you opine that he really believed in the guff he was spouting or was he constructing one of the earliest spiritual “Ponzi” schemes of which we have record?
    Do you,as a Mormon,celebrate Christmas,or is this fest also considered a pagan hangover,not belonging to the christian canon?Whatever;I wish you and yours happiness,joy,health and a reasonable amount of financial security in the coming year.Your ever sensible BillyBudd-and you know full well what befell him!

    • Billy, I’ve tried to be nice and follow my general rule of freedom of speech, but in the words of Reagan, I pay for this microphone, and you aren’t using it any longer

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